October 10, 2012 12:34:29 PM
STARKVILLE - The first offseason must have seemed longer than usual for Mississippi State University men's basketball head coach Rick Ray.
He'll have no starters returning from the program he inherited after Rick Stansbury retired after last March following 14 seasons as the Bulldogs head coach.
Ray will begin the journey of his first season as a Division 1 men's basketball head coach with just nine healthy scholarship players for the 2012-13 season assuming freshman guard Fred Thomas recovers from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.
Rodney Hood's decision to transfer away from MSU in April means Ray will have a Bulldogs roster this season without lost six of its top seven scorers from a team that
averaged 63.8 points per game in the 2011-12 campaign.
The loss of Hood, the 16th-best recruit in the country two years ago according to Rivals.com, means sophomore forward Roquez Johnson (3.2 minutes per game in 14 contests last season) is the only remaining member of five-man 2011 recruiting class under Stansbury.
But well, other than that - everything is great at Humphrey Coliseum.
The big objective for Ray and the rest of the MSU coaching staff when practice starts Saturday morning is changing the culture of the Bulldogs program.
"First of all, I want to put together a true team," Ray said Wednesday in a preseason media session. "Yeah, everybody has a team. No, that's not true and not everybody has a true team. I want guys that care about each other both on and off the court. That seems like a small thing but I want guys that care about each other both on and off the court. Guys that care about sharing, not just the basketball but experiences as well. I want our guys to form a team and not separation on their own and not guys saying 'well, this is Coach Flanigan's guy and he recruited him and he plays favoritism' or 'Coach Ray likes this guy because he recruited him'. We don't want any of that, no selfishness. I just want a true team. The next thing is from a fan perspective. I want every time they come see us play just (to ask) these three simple things. Did my team, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, play harder than the other team? The answer has got to be yes. Did my team, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, play tougher than the other team? I want the answer to be yes. And finally, did my team play smart and play smarter than the other team? If we can walk away with the fans saying 'yes, yes, yes' to those three things, to me that is being successful."
Ray laid out the bottom line problem months ago for the MSU program during the 2012-13 season: If junior guard Jalen Steele and senior center Wendell Lewis don't score, the Bulldogs can't win - period.
This dynamic means Ray is relying on two players (Steele and Lewis) with 22 combined starts last season and produced 12.5 points per game to be offensive stars next season.
"That remains to be seen because we haven't done anything competitive five on five yet and played any basketball games," Ray said. "What they've demonstrated in our 4-on-0 and 5-on-0 workouts is they've tried to assume those roles. Now, whether they end up being successful in those new roles remains to be seen and I'm excited about finding out what they can and can't do so far."
I'll have a feature in Friday's edition of the The Dispatch on the culture change around the MSU basketball program and the responsibility being put on the current players to surprise the experts and prognosticators assuming they'll finish near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference this season.
The positive and exciting news surrounding the MSU program is surrounding two freshmen (guard Fred Thomas and forward Gavin Ware).
Thomas had surgery on Aug. 29 to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. The surgery, which will be performed by Dr. Scott Jones in Columbus, involved a projected recovery period of six weeks and Ray details what is in Thomas' future over the next couple of days.
"Fred is supposed to have an x-ray and go to the doctor today," Ray said. "He'll get a final check and make sure he can come out of his walking boot right now. His first x-ray went great. He was able to get out of a cast and get into a walking boot. I still don't know what the progression is for him as if he's full boar 100 percent and can practice the whole time with the team or is he limited with what he can do? I don't know that information yet until he meets with the doctors and then the doctors meet with Scotty and then they'll relay that information to me. As far Fred doing what he's supposed to be doing, he has been great. I've looking forward to good news."
Gavin Ware, the four-star recruit from Starkville High School, has apparently dropped about 20 pounds since coming into fall workouts weighing close to 290 pounds. Ray said Wednesday he is impressed with the work ethic of the 6-foot-8 post presence throughout the fall semester.
"Gavin has been great," Ray said. "It's real simple, as his weight decreased, he's looked better on the court. In those first workouts where he weighed 290 pounds, he didn't look very good. As the weight has dropped off, his performance has gone up. I think Gavin has been terrific and Coach Akins has done a terrific job with him as far as monitoring what he's eating and getting him in the weight room. Coach Akins is willing to do all the work with him but if Gavin isn't willing to accept that, then we have problems because you can't be with a kid 24 hours a day. We're telling Gavin he needs to eat grilled chicken and salads but he doesn't do it, then what we're preaching falls on deaf ears. The biggest thing so far is Gavin has been a willing listener and done everything we've asked of him. His weight right now is hovering around 270 pounds and that's terrific. We want him to stay there and I don't think there's going to be any problems with him staying there now that we're going to start practices. I think Gavin is going to be a contributor to this team and have an impact. He has chance to be a really good player down the line for us."
MSU will open its basketball season on the road. The Bulldogs travel to Troy University in a Nov. 9 showdown against the Trojans to open the 2012-13 campaign.
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.